RE: RARA-AVIS: Noir and violence

From: John Williams (
Date: 20 Mar 2005

Karin wrote

  I do agree that showing a character's response to pain is a way of developing the character. The debatable part is how it is done.

  I must say I'm really sympathetic to Karin's point of view here. I can understand that there may be people who read noir/hb because they're interested in seeing just how tough a detective/hero might possibly be, but I can't say I'm one of them. For me the noir/hb novel is a way of talking honestly about the human condition, while not forgoing the pleasures of story.

  As a writer I think the hardest things to write are sex and violence and certain rules pertain to both. For me their primary purpose is to illuminate character. And when they fail utterly is when they decide instead to titillate. Now titillation is in some degree in the eye of the beholder, but, by and large, I have a pretty good idea as to when I, as a reader of a scene of sex or violence, am being titillated. And by and large it's accompanied by the thought 'does anyone really do that?' In sex scenes the wish fulfilment tends to be all too obvious (twins, hot tubs, hookers who fall for detectives) but, with violence, authors tend to be hide behind the
'it's all true' defence. Frankly I don't believe for a moment that rapists regularly remove their victims' teeth (you just have to consider the logistics seriously) and I strongly suspect that something about the notion of it turns the author on. And I think the repulsion to which Karin refers is the repulsion one feels at being confronted with someone's else's sexual fantasies (without having asked for them). Torture, it seems to me, is almost always pornographic, once written down.

  Of course I realise that plenty of the appeal of fifties noir at the time was as a kind of violent pornography, I kind of hoped though that, here in the noughties, noir might concern itself with real tensions and troubles, and not merely provide an outlet for writers to sublimate their aberrant desires.

  There's a line in a Jimmie Dale Gilmore song about the difference between
'what's real and what pretends'. I think most of this outre violence is the product of writers pretending. It's certainly very 'genre', but it's nothing of what makes me love - and, intermittently, attempt to write - the genre. Because that is about attempting to deal with what's real, and that involves, as a writer, trying to transmit something learned from one's life experiences. If your life experiences involve lots of fetishistic violence, then you may well write well about it, if not, please consider the possibility that you won't.


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